Britain’s Warrior Queen: Is Boudicca’s Adoration deserved?

Written by Nathaniel Robinson. Edited by Emma ward.

In the single minded-pursuit of vengeance, the warrior queen of the Iceni massacred thousands and led an insurrection which almost caused the Roman Empire to abandon Britannia. This attempted liberation is celebrated in British history, but, given the failed revolt led to the increased persecution of Britons and that thousands of innocents were massacred along the way does Boudicca deserve to be celebrated?

While Boudicca was still mourning the death of her husband, Prasutagus, Roman soldiers forced their way into her home and seized her along with her two daughters. In front of her people, Boudicca was flogged and her two daughters were raped before the Romans widened their acts of cruelty on the rest of the Iceni. The Romans undertook these acts after receiving the will of recently deceased King Prasutagus. To show his loyalty to Rome, Prasutagus had left half of his kingdom to the emperor, but bequeathed the other half to his daughters. According to Roman law, contracts with client kings terminated upon their death, and thus turn over all of their possessions to Rome. Usually, this transition was carried out without brutality, in the hope of gaining the loyalty of the newly conquered people. But Prasutagus’s presumption to think he could leave such a large portion of his kingdom to his heirs, and female heirs at that, incurred the anger of Rome. Whilst powerful women were relatively common among the Britons, female rulers were an absurd concept to the patriarchal society of Rome. Through their acts of cruelty against the Iceni, Rome hoped to make its opinions on this matter very clear. These events galvanised the Iceni and under Boudicca they would stop at nothing until vengeance against the Roman Empire was achieved.

Word of the atrocities suffered by the Iceni spread like wildfire through the British Isles and thousands of aggravated Britons joined Boudicca’s search for vengeance. Like the Iceni, the Trinovantes harboured deep resentment towards the Romans, and while warriors from tribes all over Britannia rallied to the movement, none of them contributed as much manpower as the Trinovantes. The tribes were so invested in the cause that their warriors were followed by an enormous trail of carts driven by their families and loaded with their possessions creating a horde of well over 100,000 people with tens of thousands of warriors. To restore their people’s honour, the Iceni and Trinovantes were willing to risk everything.

Confident of victory Boudicca led her army towards the colonia of Camulodunum. When the Roman citizens of Camulodunum became aware of the approaching horde they desperately pleaded for help to the procurator in nearby Londinium. But the procurator was not a military commander, and, therefore, was only able to send around 200 ill-equipped men to reinforce the small garrison. With no solid defences constructed yet to protect the growing colonia, the citizens of Camulodunum watched in horror as Boudicca entered the town and ordered the destruction of everything in sights. Buildings were set on fire and thousands of people were slaughtered in the streets as Boudicca did not intend on taking prisoners. The Roman survivors barricaded themselves within the temple of Claudius, but the desperately outnumbered force were completely surrounded. Amid the black smoke filling the sky and reek of decaying flesh surrounding the edifice, the besiegers finally broke through the remaining barricades and massacred all who remained within. Boudicca’s horde pillaged as many spoils as they could find before moving on towards the town of Londinium.

Unlike Camulodunum, the citizens of Londinium were aware of the advancing army with ample time for them to flee. Londinium was almost deserted by the time that Boudicca reached the town. Any Roman left behind was slain and buildings were destroyed. Atrocities were also perpetuated on aristocratic women in revenge for the crimes committed against Boudicca. After mutilating their breasts and faces, Roman noble women were then impaled on spikes. Once the destruction of Londinum was completed the horde moved on to confront the Romans in open battle. The Romans, led by Paulinus, had chosen to assemble his men, with a thick forest behind them and slopes protecting their flanks. When the two forces collided at the battle of Watling Street, it was Roman experience and training which proved superior. When the Britons broke and fled from the slaughter they were trapped by the carts which had accompanied them. The Romans destroyed all in their path including women, children and the pack animals.

Boudicca’s act of drinking poison rather than surrendering has cemented her legacy in British memory as a martyr for British freedom against oppression. This interpretation is contested; ultimately she was unsuccessful at removing the Romans from Britannia, although Emperor Nero nearly gave up the fledgling province due to its cost to maintain. Whilst Boudicca may have achieved the vengeance she sought, this vengeance came at the price of up to 70,000 Roman and Romanised Britons lives as well as those of her own people who had died in the fighting – not to mention the widespread destruction.

The sad truth is that her people faced greater oppression after her death because of her actions against Rome. Rather than the embodiment of resistance against oppression, is Boudicca instead better remembered as a blood thirsty warrior queen, who was blinded by revenge with no regard for the long term prosperity of her people?